By Sharon Oosthoek

No one needs to tell a chemist that the central science often gets a bad rap – the words ‘chemical’ and ‘contamination’ seem to go together in the public imagination.

But the reality, as Alberta chemists Dietmar Kennepohl and Ken Schmidt are keen to point out, is that chemistry is neither bad nor good. It’s what you do with it that matters.

“Decisions to pollute are economic decisions,” says Schmidt, an expert in industrial analytical chemistry and president of St. Albert-based Wilson Analytical. “Chemists don’t sit in their labs asking people to ruin the environment.”

Getting that message out in a fun and engaging way was why Kennepohl, Schmidt and the rest of the Edmonton CIC Local Section created Café CIC. From bread to whiskey to cheese, each year the café highlights a new food or drink, and the chemistry involved in making it. The evening consists of talks and tastings by experts in the field, liberally sprinkled with musical interludes and time for socializing.

Launched in 2004, Café CIC is now the Edmonton Section’s biggest event of the year. Open to the public and boasting about 100 attendees, it often sells out in a matter of days.

The event’s success has earned Kennepohl and Schmidt SCI Canada’s Outreach Award, to be presented in Toronto on May 5, but both stress the café is a team effort with the CIC’s local members.

The SCI Canada award is particularly significant because it amounts to a nod from industry for public outreach, says CIC vice chair Deborah Nicoll-Griffith, who nominated the café.  SCI, headquartered in London, UK, provides the opportunity for sharing information between sectors as diverse as food and agriculture, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and the chemical industry. Established in 1881 as the Society of Chemical Industry, it now has members in over 70 countries.

“Dietmar and Ken have created a model for how to present chemistry to the public,” says Nicoll-Griffith, president of Quebec-based EndoParagon inc. “Chemistry can be frightening. They’ve created a warm, inviting environment, where you can learn about chemistry with wine, cheese and chocolate, and even some jazz. How can that be frightening?”

Kennepohl, a chemistry professor at Athabasca University, remembers looking out into the audience during the first café – all about chocolate – and being surprised by what he saw.

“I’m used to students looking confused or bored,” he jokes. “But I saw something very different that night. It was relaxed and people were engaged.”

It was exactly what he and the rest of the local section were hoping for. The café’s goal is not to make participants experts, but to capture their attention long enough to give them a basic working knowledge.

“We want to encourage scientific literacy,” says Kennepohl. “We live in a society with so much science and technology and so many decisions are based on them, but it’s amazing how many people don’t understand.”

Today, the Edmonton café is a model for other local CIC sections, including those in the Maritimes and Ontario. “We hope to inspire others. And really, it’s just so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work,” says Kennepohl.